Monday, June 9, 2008

Between a rock and jihad place?

I don't normally have much time for interfaith dialogue, two words guaranteed to send me to sleep, but at this level they can help shape policy and attitude. It's not about learning what day the Jewish sabbath is on or why Christians celebrate Easter. It has to be about how people of different religions can live together without antagonising each other, either because their government or spiritual leadership says it's ok. The grand mufti is the highest religious official in Saudi and his support of Abdullah's outreach programme is a good sign. But there are some serious obstacles in the way, namely Saudi Arabia.

The king hasn't publicly declared which clerics back his interfaith initiative and having Rafsanjani on the same stage won't have helped his cause either. There's a bunch of Saudi clerics that hate Shias, especially the Iranian variety, and Rafsanjani's rant made it clear that cooperation with the west, and handing over your natural resources to them, is totally untenable.

Who could he be referring to? The person on his right - the King. It's not just a Saudi thing either. It's a Turkish thing too. In Istanbul you have the leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I. By law, he can't appear on the streets in his robes and his bishops have to keep renewing their tourist visas so they can stay in Turkey. They don't have work permits or residency.

There's not much interfaith or dialogue going on in either of these places and attitudes like these – dogmatic, intolerant and inflexible – are the very opposite of what is needed in places where Islam is the majority religion. It's all very well saying that you accept difference, but what matters is whether you embrace it instead of stifling it.

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